At Home in a Foreign Land is a series of concerts, or gigs as the versatile McFall’s Chamber calls them, examining the themes of migration, exile and displacement. Earlier in the year, Giya Kancheli’s beautifully sparse settings of Psalm 23 and the poems of Paul Celan and Hans Saul were performed with a soprano in solemn church settings. As if an antidote to all that austerity, this exuberant performance where jazz trio meets string quartet with clarinet was the complete opposite with the group revisiting some favourites and introducing us to three new works. Like a rock concert, everything was miked, but intelligently mixed taking a less-is-more approach achieving a superb balance of sound in Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall.

McFall's Chamber at the Fringe © McFall's Chamber
McFall's Chamber at the Fringe
© McFall's Chamber

Pianist Paul Harrison’s Consequences, a reaction to political dissatisfaction, is clearly even more apt today than in 2015 when it was written. A lively opener with piano syncopations rising over string rhythms and lightly dancing drums from Stuart Brown, it built into an exciting climax using block chords from the strings with solos from Maximilano Martín’s bright clarinet and Su-a Lee’s cello, ending quietly but restless.

Harrison’s new work, Born in Dirt and Din from a poem by ‘Red Poppy’ was a soundtrack to an imaginary silent film about Clyde shipbuilding. A double dose of electronics from Harrison’s small synthesiser and the drum kit and percussion helped set up a mechanical soundtrack with a large assortment of bangs and whizzes, a structured cacophony  as the players entered, relief from the driving energy coming from a lyrical cello duet with double bass creating a chord sequence with welcome warm intervals. 

Dutch based, Scottish composer Vivian Barty-Taylor’s new piece Red Blue Balance uses natural pure interval tunings. He joined the group to explain how his rhythms derived from the “Golden Ratio”, plugging in his laptop to alter the pitch on Harrison’s keyboard. A wash of synthesiser against dense strings, the clarinet set up a gentle dissonance as Iain Sandilands was kept busy on percussion from woodblocks to lightly struck tubular bells. When not playing, each musician took up conducting duties beating out a slow three beats as the music swirled around in complicated cross rhythms, the natural tuning adding an astringent quality to the sound as Robert McFall’s violin tussled noisily with the clarinet.

Funk bandleader Mike Kearney's new piece The Phoenix was a response to writer’s block  ending and the sudden rush of new ideas rising anew out of the doldrums. Musical sighs from all, a plaintive viola from Brian Schiele and exploratory clarinet gave way to a dense tapestry before the torrent of fresh material started flowing, Rick Standley now on bass guitar, setting an exciting pace as Harrison’s piano added jazzy chord blocking, Martín’s clarinet suddenly exploding into a triumphant flourish in celebration of creativity.

The group revisited Tim Garland’s four movement ExtrApollination beginning with an arresting clarinet cadenza, then taking us for a thrilling ride on the Metropolitan line, Stuart Brown’s brushes beating out tight irregular railway line tattoos, the train building speed as the bass joined in. A vivid lighthouse vignette with sweeping beam and a lively tribute to Spanish flamenco guitar player Paco de Lucia ended the quirky piece. Martin Kershaw’s Closing In was more introspective with rolling piano and sweet clarinet solo, a sunny but restless piece.

To round off, a hark back to Bongo Club days with animated Frank Zappa numbers, the players never missing a beat in the tight runs of rhythmic unison in the best jazz-rock style. Three favourite Raymond Scott pieces were a delight: the cartoonish Penguin, the busy Tobacco Auctioneer and the sinuous Curlicue were delivered in best swing band style.

With nine players, to avoid chaos, all the music was written down, so although not quite jazz in the improvisational sense, the meeting of jazz trio and classical players driven on by deft percussion just seemed to work completely naturally, to the obvious enjoyment of the Fringe crowd.

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